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Although this documentary originally came out in 2004, I had never seen it before attending a free screening at World Cafe Live last Friday night that was sponsored and promoted by WXPN DJ ROBERT DRAKE and his ‘80s-themed radio show Land of the Lost. The film chronicles New York’s “no wave” scene in two distinct parts. The first half starts off with footage of early influences like THE NEW YORK DOLLS and SUICIDE, the latter of whom was probably the most influential on the movement. Then we see footage of LYDIA LUNCH’s band TEENAGE JESUS AND THE JERKS (including JIM SCLAVUNOS’ hilarious story of how he first auditioned for the band) and other no-wave luminaries like JAMES CHANCE, MARS and DNA, all of whom were featured on the No Wave compilation that was produced by BRIAN ENO and put out on the Island subsidiary Antilles in 1978.
It also includes interviews with Lunch, ARTO LINDSAY of DNA and other luminaries like GLENN BRANCA (who played in THEORETICAL GIRLS before he started composing classical pieces for guitar), SONIC YOUTH and SWANS (whose THURSTON MOORE and MICHAEL GIRA, respectively, are interviewed here), who were heavily inspired by the no-wave scene, though both got their start a bit later in the early ‘80s. This footage depicts a downtown Manhattan far removed from the expensive, trendy place it is today. Instead, it was dirty, carefree and cheap, attracting many artists, including many who are still active today.
The film shows how these bands took punk’s do-it-yourself and ‘anyone can do it’ ethos to extremes that their more conventional peers and influences didn’t dream of. Many could barely play a lick on any instrument, yet through sheer force of will and creativity, they created a musical language whose influence is deeply felt today. Furthermore, there was no real precedent for what they did. The closest comparisons could be made to CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and Suicide, but these bands’ primitivism was much more extreme, and dissimilar to Beefheart and THE MAGIC BAND, who were all accomplished musicians.
Instead of a direct musical influence, however, these bands’ most direct influence was on the spirit of bands as diverse as Sonic Youth, Swans, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY and EINSTURZENDE NEUBATEN, not to mention the long-running Japanese experimental outfit BOREDOMS.
The second half of the film is far more frustrating, but yet endlessly thought-provoking. Set in 2002, the film interviews then up-and-coming Brooklyn outfits like YEAH YEAH YEAHS, LIARS and BLACK DICE and shows interviews with them (including a particulary incoherent and rambling KAREN O) at that time. Thus, it already feels a little out-of-date when Yeah Yeah Yeahs have two hit records on a major label and are successful around the world, whereas Liars have lost their original rhythm section and evolved into a rhythmic, noisy and experimental outfit worlds away from the dance-punk they displayed on their first album. While the connection that these artists have to the original no-wave scene is tenuous at best, one thing is clear. They are (or at least were at the time) enamored with the late ‘70s/early ‘80s New York scene. And so, instead of being a part of a “no-wave revival,” they’re more in line with indie-rock trends of the last five years or so which lionize that entire post-punk era and try to emulate it.
In the film older artists like Branca and especially Lydia Lunch take turns at systematically dismissing the newer bands as a bunch of poseurs who form a band because they can, not because it’s a matter of survival or mental sanity. She also dismisses their supposed lack of originality. I think this is a bit unfair, though. While I agree with her point that culture should move forward, nothing exists in a vacuum, and you can’t fault bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs for not living the hardscrabble existence that Lunch and many of her peers did. Of course that’s no reflection on their art and if it’s worth listening to. Only the individual listener can decide that.
With that said, my major issue with the movie is its exclusion of acts who were bred in New York between 1982 and the turn of the millennium. It seems a little ill-conceived to talk about the influence of no wave on New York bands without talking about JON SPENCER’s various projects, from PUSSY GALORE to BOSS HOG, or the great GOD IS MY CO-PILOT, just to illustrate two examples. Granted, the media glare has shifted on New York obsessively over the last five years or so since the rise of retro bands like THE STROKES, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t great and vital music created during the times when it didn’t shine.
Another interesting thing is that the movie uses EUGENE HUTZ of GOGOL BORDELLO as a beacon of hope. Of the newer scenesters, he seems to agree with the old-timers that culture should move forward. And he seems intent on creating music that does just that, mixing old-school punk with the music of his native Eastern European roots in a pan-cultural stew that suggests the withering away of cultural and political borders in the age of instant global communication. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for the filmmaker to heap so much praise on him, but it’s at least admirable that he’s thinking in the right direction here.
No matter what your thoughts are on the subject, and despite its flaws, this film is worth seeing, not only if you’re a fan of the artists and scenes profiled, but also if you care about music as art and the direction it will take in the future.
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